France's "positive" colonialism law appears likely to be struck down

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A bitter row over a French law that recognises the "positive role" of colonialism appeared to be close to resolution Thursday after President Jacques Chirac asked for the controversial clause to be struck off the statute books.

The president accepted advice from a parliamentary committee to resort to a rarely-used constitutional procedure in order to remove the offending article -- which appears in a government bill passed a year ago providing financial compensation to repatriated colonials.

The clause is to be referred to the country's constitutional council -- a nine-member body that decides on the constitutionality of laws -- on the grounds that it is outside the competence of the legislature.

Article Four of law 2005-158 states that "scholastic programmes recognise in particular the positive role of the French overseas presence, especially in north Africa, and accord to history and to the sacrifices of army soldiers from these territories the eminent place that they deserve."

At Chirac's request, the constitutional council is expected to rule that school texts are fixed by government regulation not by law, and that the clause is therefore unsustainable.

The device provides the government with a get-out from a highly embarrassing episode, which further damaged relations with the country's black and Arab populations just as the country was reeling from last November's rioting in high-immigration suburbs.

The clause was introduced as a private amendment to the wider law by a right-wing member of Chirac's Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), and it went unnoticed for several months until a petition circulating on the Internet began to draw the media's attention.

Academics said the article was a flagrant intrusion by politicians into the realm of historical debate, while left-wingers accused the government of trying to lay down an official version of the colonial past that ignored its huge human cost.

Opposition drew to a head shortly after last year's riots when Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy was forced to cancel a trip to France's territories in the Caribbean because of a threat of anti-government demonstrations -- even though he made clear he personally had little truck with the law.

Virtually the whole political class expressed satisfaction Thursday with the apparent resolution of the impasse. Veteran Affairs Minister Hamlaoui Mekachera, who drafted the overall law, said Chirac's intervention was a "solution of wisdom and conciliation."

For Christiane Taubira, a black legislator from French Guyana, the decision was one of "lucidity, wisdom and courage which will finally bring an element of reconciliation and allow us to cool down the debate."

The Algerian government, which vehemently opposed the law, also expressed satisfaction, with a spokesman for the ruling coalition partner the National Democratic Rally (RND) saying its abandonment could open the way to a long-awaited treaty of friendship between the countries.

But some historians remain concerned about the on-going temptation among French politicians to make legislative pronouncements on historical events, and are campaigning for three other laws to be repealed.

These are a 2001 law recognising the Turkish massacres of Armenians in 1915 as genocide; a law from the same year recognising slavery as a crime against humanity; and a 1990 law which makes it a criminal offence to deny certain defined crimes against humanity.

"We have to abrogate all these so-called laws of memory. Even if they are well-intentioned, they end up trying to impose a particular vision of history," said Paris-based historian Jean-Jacques Becker, a specialist in World War I.

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